Perception and hallucination: Krishnamurti among the neuroscientists

There is a view among some neuroscientists (such as Anil Seth and Donald Hoffman, etc) that our perceptual experience of the world is largely (or wholly?) constructed, projected, hallucinated, and so not real. They feel that the brain-body actively constructs or hallucinates perceptual experience, and so creates a world that doesn’t truly exist in that manner.

People who are influenced by this view tend to object when Krishnamurti talks about direct perception, about perception without images, because they think that science has disproved such a possibility, and so it is not worth taking seriously.

So I thought it may be worth exploring it a little, without wanting to go into excessive scientific details about the neurological mechanics of perception.

In thinking of Krishnamurti’s teaching, it is clear that he makes a distinction between bodily perception, the senses, and the psychological movement of thought. The one can influence the other - as happens in most people - but they are not the same thing. The senses have been put together over millions and millions of years, through a slow evolution that started out with the simplest life-forms, and slowly evolved to create our senses of vision, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, proprioception, and cognition, thought (thought can be regarded as one of the senses).

But in human beings the development of thought has become exponential in a way it hasn’t for any other animal, and exponential only from around 100 thousand years ago.

The part of the brain :brain: considered to be responsible for the activity of thought is called the neocortex (and more particularly, the pre-frontal cortex). According to the scientists the neocortex evolved from a simpler forms that can still be found in mice (with whom humans shared a common ancestor 100 million years ago), and much later on with monkeys (with whom humans shared a common ancestor 25 million years ago), culminating in the brain of modern hominids (who shared a basic anatomy from about 300 thousand years ago). Modern human behaviour - from which can infer further developments of brain activity - is believed to date from between 160 thousand to 60 thousand years ago (Australian aboriginal cultures date back to this time), while the invention of agriculture and modern human settlements dates back to only 15 thousand years ago or so; with the great early civilisations in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley dating to around 5 thousand years ago. The rapid evolution of culture religion and technology dates from this time.

So while the brain-body’s capacities for sensory perception has been many millions of years in the making, the advent of psychological thought probably only goes back thousands of years. This is why as a very loose analogy one might say that the mechanics of sense perception are like the hardware we are born with, while psychological thought is like the software our brains make use of as a supplementary extension of perception.

For Krishnamurti the mechanics of perception - that is, how the brain organises sensory information and processes it according to various neurological processes - is not a question. A healthy brain, perceiving or sensing in a healthy way, is sufficient.

What Krishnamurti questions is the role of psychological thought in our lives, what place has psychological knowledge, etc. Does the brain need to be occupied with psychological memories, mental images, incessant mental chatter?

So he is not questioning the role that ordinary perceptual cognition - the anatomical brain’s healthy perceptual functioning - plays in perception. His concern is with psychological thought, and how it interferes in perception.

The way Krishnamurti uses the word perception often involves sensory perception, but he also talks about perception in a more general or broader way. Sometimes by the word perception he means insight, even insight from beyond or ‘outside’ the brain.

This is clearly a meaning to the word that most neuroscientists will not accept or generally consider.

Krishnamurti sometimes talks about a perception in which there is no distance of space and time between the perceiver and the perceived. This is again a special usage of the word perception that most neuroscientists will not accept or generally consider.

It is important to note that while neuroscientists like Anil Seth make a very big deal about how our senses do not perceive the world as it really is - for example our colour perception is limited to a very narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum - the same is true of all forms of perceptual cognition.

We know, from science, that what exists objectively ‘out there’ is almost wholly empty space. This space may be itself full of potential energy, but it is wholly invisible to the eye or to the physical senses - except, perhaps, the sense of space itself.

So the very fact that our brain-bodies perceive a world of medium dry goods is already, from the point of view of the (mostly empty) physical universe itself, a misperception.

It maybe that that in deep meditation this misperception itself is realised in what Krishnamurti talks about as a state of nothingness, emptiness. But this doesn’t detract from the fact that for all life on earth, and for all practical purposes, a world of medium dry goods exists - and if you miss your train you will be late for work.

So, I feel, this language of hallucination and projection is overdone by some scientists (and their followers). It verges on a kind of solipsism (as does, for example, a certain kind of Advaita).

One aspect of what people like Anil Seth are saying that overlaps with what Krishnamurti talks about is how much our prior assumptions in thought can influence perception.

The famous example from ancient India is of the rope that is mistaken for a snake :snake:.

Snakes :snake: are prevalent across south and east Asia, and so it is natural for someone living in an environment known to have snakes to be subconsciously on the look out for them, and project them even into objects - such as a rope - where they do not exist.

And, coming closer to our present lived reality, it is clear that the images we form of other people - whether informed by our cultural assumptions and biases, or by our own past experiences - colour our experiences, our perceptions, of others.

This means that people can be trained, through propaganda, through repetition in thought, to perceive other people as enemies, as vermin, as lacking in humanity. Which is often used as a pretext for violence.

The aspect that Krishnamurti emphasises is that it is important to recognise this process in oneself, and to find out if one can look at another, or at nature, without images, without prior assumptions in thought. It may be that this is less of a priority for scientists.

What do you feel about all this @macdougdoug ?

Which is why they can create a hydrogen bomb :bomb:

Seems fine to me, I like the term “medium dry goods”

K and neurologists aren’t playing in the same ballpark - neurologists stating an opinion about the teachings would just be stating opinions, not sharing data or theories about their specialist subjects.

Meanwhile the conflicts and experiences we are living here are to do with us and the images we hold.
I’ll read through your posts again tonight and see if I can come up with some reaction.

Aren’t neurologists agreeing with K when they say that perception (for the psychologically conditioned brain) is not direct perception, not choiceless awareness, but based on the brain’s experience and its imagined identity?

We know that the human brain’s default mode network is, to a large extent, its sense of who/what it is, so why wouldn’t its perception support that illusion?

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I don’t think this is completely true? Their approaches are completely different, but the ballpark they are exploring into is consciousness, what is going on inside the brain, and on this score it is important to listen to what both have to say.

If you go back and watch the videos of Krishnamurti in discussion with ‘brain scientists’ from 1984, you can see that similar objections were being raised back then to the notion of a direct perception, or a perception without images or memory.

Part of the confusion is that perceptual cognition - i.e. those features of perception with which neuroscientists are chiefly interested, having to do with the way the brain processes sensory experience (whether through Bayesian inference or some other algorithm based on biological pragmatism, evolutionary memory, etc) - is not what Krishnamurti is calling thought and memory.

Krishnamurti is not disputing that the evolution of the organism maximises fitness over truth, he is not saying that sensory perception does not involve subconscious or non-conscious networks of perceptual cognition that enable vision, hearing, sensing to take place. What he is suggesting is that the background influence of psychological memory - aka the self, the ‘me’, with its mental images and thoughts - does not need to be present during the perception of a tree, a flower, a cloud, the person’s face, etc.

Do you see the difference @macdougdoug ?

So the ‘software’ of psychological memory is what Krishnamurti is saying can be absent during perception, not the ‘hardware’ of the brain’s perceptual cognitions. That is, we can do something about psychological memory - although the ‘doing’ is a matter of self-knowledge, attention, insightfulness - whereas we can do very little about our millions of years old perceptual neurology. Right?

If you see this then you will know that when we are talking about a perception without images we are talking about psychological images, and not the brain’s proprioceptive body image, or Bayesian algorithm for perceptual processing, etc. I hope you can see this point by now.

Two more related points:

  1. the idea of evolution for fitness rather than truth is not a new idea that Anil Seth came up with. Schopenhauer’s philosophy is based on the assumption that all organic, biological and intellectual evolution is premised on the fitness for survival, rather than on the approximation to or search for truth. Nevertheless, the very fact that our biology and neurology has been millions and millions of years in the making, means that the degree to which our perceptual cognitions are fit for most practical purposes means that we can trust our perceptions most of the time. Sense-perceptions can be completely mistaken, and there are limit cases where they break down altogether; but most of the time they are more than adequate in meeting the needs of the organism. Moreover, our sensory experience can be sharpened to the degree that we deprioritise the significance and presence of psychological thought.
  2. Which brings me to my final point, which is that the metaphor of “controlled hallucination” for ordinary perception is, I feel, an exaggeration of certain features of perceptual cognition that miscommunicate the degree to which sensory perception is adequate for the purposes of the organism. As Seth admits throughout his book, sense-perception actually works more often than not. If you want to avoid an oncoming bus there’s no place for calling one’s perceptions a hallucination: one’s senses of sight, hearing and proprioception are more than up to the task of responding to mind-independent facts like cars and buses. So while the metaphor of “hallucination” may be useful in analysing certain aspects of the brain’s perceptual cognising, it can be exaggerated to the point of meaninglessness, which I think it does to some extent.

Anyway, it has taken me some time to read Seth’s book and reflect on these matters, due in part to your prompting, so I would appreciate it if you could read this through and let me know whether you have understood what has been written, and whether you still have major objections to exploring into what Krishnamurti meant by perceiving without images (i.e. psychological thought, psychological memory, and so on).

I have been reading what you are posting, and no challenges, disagreements are arising.
I still don’t think that even in the past, I had major objections to the idea of perceiving without images - it was always about clarifying, being pedantic, about what we mean when we say stuff.

When I’m staring into the fire after a long day, the memory of this experience (of staring into fire) is one where narrative thought appears to be absent, concepts and desires are not apparent, so we can say that there is “perception without images”.

Where the rubber meets the road is when we are confronting models/images. And we are always confronting self projected images in our own heads automatically. These models/images are only ever a means to an end.

Maybe it’s just the way you write, but I find it difficult to catch what you are saying here? You could be saying something very straightforward: we all have to deal with the mental images we have inside our mind.

But when you use the word ‘model’, or ‘automatic’, or ‘means to an end’, you seem to be saying something else.

By ‘model’ you seem to mean theory, which is a little bit different to a simple mental image. And by model or theory you seem to mean both our scientific theories, as well as what Krishnamurti has said about perception without images. What you mean by this may need some unpacking. Are you suggesting that we should ignore what scientists and Krishnamurti have said about perception? Or do you simply mean that perception without images includes perceiving without any theories held mentally in the mind?

By ‘automatic’ you could simply be pointing to what ordinarily happens in our mind - the constant activity of thought. Or you could be going a step further and suggesting that this mental activity of thought is inevitable, and cannot be otherwise.

By ‘means to an end’ it isn’t clear what end the images you are talking about have. Usually mental imagery is present without any particular ‘end’. It may just be a re-cogitation of memory, as happens when we dream for example. Whereas if by ‘model’ you mean a theory, then of course scientific theories enable us to do science. Or are you talking about listening to what Krishnamurti says as a ‘means to an end’?

As I said, maybe you just meant something simple and straightforward. But due to the way you use words it seems to be more complicated than that.

I suppose I’m focussing on the “mirror of relationship”

Dialogue (here on kinfonet) I feel/believe, should be not only about the models we present (about the teachings, about the human experience) but also about the relationships that are taking place (between the images and the brain)

Its nice if we can walk the walk, when we talk the talk.

I understand, but if we confuse or conflate two or more separate issues in our dialogue, then this will end up confusing us both.

If we could stick to the ‘model’ issue first (we can come to the ‘relationship’ issue presently), when you talk about the ‘models we present’, are you calling what Krishnamurti pointed to as ‘a model’ that we have to choose or dispute about, in the same way that a particular scientific theory is a model?

I think this will be confusing.

As I understand it, Krishnamurti doesn’t create a ‘model’ of the mind in the same way that a scientist does. He is drawing attention to issues about our mental life that can be acted upon.

Do you see the difference?

For example, when he talks about the possibility of perceiving without images, he is not drawing up a model of the mind, he is calling our attention to a mode of being which involves direct action, actual seeing.

The models we present are ours. We may feel that they are an accurate representation of what K was saying, and they might be, the problem is that my model becomes precious.

Maybe what actually is precious is seeing this ego relationship.

Just as precious as neurology is to producing useful data, just as precious as the teaching is to inviting us to care.

As I said before, we will presently come to this question of holding onto opinions, being egotistic, feeling resistant, conflictual, etc, in relationship.

But first of all I would like us to be clear and precise about what we are referring to as ‘models’ (which is the present topic).

Putting the question of “preciousness” and subjective value aside for a second, what do you feel that has been written or stated - either by myself or Krishnamurti (or by myself quoting Krishnamurti) - constitutes a ‘model’ according to you?

One realises that theoretical models - one can see this clearly in science for example - are in competition, and through robust argument, examination and experiment, one model becomes favoured over time at the expense of another model.

Is this what is taking place here on Kinfonet? If you feel it is, what are the models that are in play? Could you give a very clear example of such a model that either I or Krishnamurti (or myself quoting Krishnamurti) have been presenting? - together with the opposing model?

The model we have been discussing is that we get caught up in our experience of the world; an experience that can cause harm due to its selfish perspective and the authority (due to how real and important it feels) of the experience. We are saying that an awareness of the experience, combined with an understanding of the danger and conditioned/illusory/incomplete nature of the “self process”, can free us (at least momentarily) from its power.

The opposition/debate around this basic model arises from the different perspectives we all bring to what all this actually means, the implications, our interpretations of the words etc

I don’t recall any discussion about this Douglas?

The most recent discussion we have had - as far as I remember - is whether or not it is possible to look at something (a tree, a face, a flower) without having any mental images about it.

When you use the word ‘model’ it is implied that the thing being looked at is being looked at through a mental construct, and so is not actually the case, is not a fact.

But if one is actually looking at a tree, a face, a flower, then that is a fact. If one is looking at a tree, a face, a flower, but one’s perception is clouded by thoughts, worries, doubts, or mental images and associations, then this is the fact.

Does one need a ‘model’ of a fact to be aware of a fact? Is what you are calling a ‘model’ the series of words that say “Try looking at the tree without having mental images about it”?

Yes - model means : the idea that is being presented. Which I suppose includes : that which the idea entails/presupposes.

In order to be absolutely clear, could you perhaps quote the parts of my last post with which you agree or disagree, so that it is transparent what you are agreeing with or disagreeing with?

For example, when you say that

this sounds very much like you are saying any set of words or sentences that we use to communicate are a ‘model’.

Is this what you are saying?

So when I say “Go through that door to get to the bathroom”, you take this to be a ‘model’. Is this right? Have I understood your meaning?

If by ‘model’ you really mean any sentence or word that we use in our communication with each other, then it behoves us to slow down as much as we can to actually clarify what we mean by the words we are using, so that we are using them with the same meaning. Right?

So, for example, if by ‘model’ you actually mean any word or series of words that communicates a meaning - such as “Go through that door to find the bathroom” - then we can be on the same page when it comes to the word ‘model’.

Then we can ask the question: what relationship is there between a self-evident fact - such as ‘the bathroom is behind that door’ :door: - and the words we use to communicate this fact?

I’m not disagreeing with anything in particular -though when I reread carefully, stuff like :

It opens up a whole can of worms/rabbit hole that could fill pages.
And I suppose I should at least add : it depends what we mean or I don’t know.

When we are discussing doors and bathrooms for example, aren’t we caught in a whole lot of knowns? When we talk to each other we are dependant on the symbols/words and concepts they point to, themselves related to a larger model/worldview.
And at every moment that we are reacting to our experience (in dialogue for example) there is also the possibility of awareness (of the experience). These are 2 different things/ballparks as you point out.